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Association of Polytheist Traditions

What the Brutally Repressive Romans Did for Local Paganism

Copyright © by Nick and Carol Ford 2004

We have been asked: "How can you practise the religion of a people who invaded your country and enslaved your ancestors, suppressing their culture and imposing their own?" (This question is most commonly posed by certain uninformed kinds of pagan with a shaky appreciation of British history, often calling themselves 'Druidic' or 'Celtic'). The answer is a condensed history lesson, covering about a thousand years in as many words.
head of Sulis Minerva from Bath

Who were the Romans?

Without doubt, there once was a people called 'The Romans', who came from a place called Rome. The mythical founder of the city, Romulus, is said by ancient historians to have populated his new settlement by making it a safe haven for outlaws, runaway slaves, escaped criminals, and so on. Right from the start, the definition of 'Roman' was a very inclusive one indeed.

As the city - and its people - grew bigger and stronger, it controlled more and more territory, both by alliance and conquest. Eventually, anyone could earn Roman citizenship rights in return for certain services, provided that they then met the same obligations as any other citizen of Rome. The city also planted colonies, seed-cities if you will, elsewhere in the Mediterranean world, a practice common to all the city-states of the early Classical period. Soon there were Romans all over the place, people with legal Roman status, living according to Roman law as well as local custom, who lived and died without ever seeing Rome, and many who never even mastered the Latin language. There were even barbarians who pretended to be Roman, but weren't.

The more powerful Roman culture became, and the more it spread, the more people wanted to be part of it. In material terms, the attraction of Romanitas ('being Roman') was much the same as being American -or engaging largely in American culture - today.

During the Late Pre-Roman Iron Age an extensive trade - in ideas as well as commodities - developed between Britain and the Roman world. Not only Roman amphorae, but Roman gold and Roman military equipment, turns up in the burial tumuli of British chieftains dating to before the (so-called) conquest. At the same time, leaders of the Dobunni, the Iceni, the Trinovantes and the Atrebates minted their coinage using dies which are identical to those used under Augustus and Tiberius, with inscriptions in immaculate Latin. Strabo, writing in the reign of Augustus, states that visiting British aristocrats in Rome were not uncommon.

One way of getting to be a fully-paid-up Roman, which would pass on to your descendants, was to join the Roman army. If you weren't already a citizen you couldn't serve in the legions, the regular heavy infantry, but you could always enlist in what were called the Auxiliarii - mostly light infantry and cavalry, drawn originally from states allied to Rome. If you survived 25 years in one of these units - or did something really heroic to deserve the award earlier - you would be paid off with a certificate of Roman citizenship and a grant of land for you and your family. If you were a barbarian king's son and sent to Rome for your further education (a thing which Augustus encouraged), you could be offered the rank of legate and the command of one of these auxiliary units.

The Romans in Britain

In the Roman army that the Emperor Claudius sent to Britain in 43 CE, there were at least twice as many of these hopeful non-Romans as there were Romans. There were Celts from lands as far apart as modern-day Spain and Bulgaria, there were Greeks, Arabs, North Africans, even by then a few Germans. All thinking of themselves as Roman - albeit Greek Romans, Iberian Romans, Arab Romans, and so on.

In the Roman army you worshipped the official gods of Rome when on parade, but off duty you could practise whatever kind of religion you liked, to whatever gods you wished. Any religion was OK so long as it didn't disrespect the official gods of Rome. These diverse gods, from all over the Empire, including some from Gaul already known to the Britons, also came to Britain, as many dedications attest. The Roman army was an incredible melting-pot of beliefs and cultures, mixing religious beliefs and pouring them into a new mould which was - in a very vague and general sense - Roman. Rome changed the foreigners, and then the foreigners changed Rome.

With the Roman army also came another army of tradespeople and other opportunists, selling goods and services, first to the soldiers, then to the locals, who themselves were at least as likely to want to trade with the strangers as to want to kill them. It was not so much a military invasion as a cultural infusion, which had started over 200 years earlier when the wine trade to Britain from the Mediterranean was big business.

So - having deconstructed these people called the Romans, some of whom were already in Britain before the invasion, let's have a look at what they did when they arrived in force. Did they enslave those who resisted them? Of course. Throughout Iron Age Europe, taking slaves was one of the most profitable aspects of warfare. However, the concept of slavery in Roman society differed enormously from what is understood by slavery today, and could actually represent a chance of upward social mobility denied to the lower classes of traditional, native Celtic society.

Whose ancestors?

Were the native peoples of Britain 'our' ancestors? We are not sure. Recent genetic research into mitochondrial DNA indicates that at least some of them probably were on the female side, but it seems silly to assume that all our forbears exclusively were insular Celts - and just as ridiculous to claim that all our ancestors were all Germanic, or even - as we have defined it - all Roman. Unfortunately we still find today that a disturbing number of pagans mistake ethnicity for culture, and still deal in erroneous, 19thC. concepts of 'race'. Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Jews, are not different races any more than being American is in itself a racial characteristic. What identifies such peoples is their participation in a certain kind of cultural pattern, of which language and belief are a part.

The relative absence of racist values in Roman society is well- documented, and the adoptive nature of the Roman extended family - epitomised by Luperca the she-wolf who fostered Romulus and Remus - indicates strongly that while family ancestry was held to be important, genetics alone did not determine ancestry. For a Roman, there was only one race one could belong to - the human race. The thing that mattered was to be truly, fully human - in other words, as they saw it, Roman. No human being was debarred from this. Even barbarian slaves became Roman citizens.

So now, having established that we have no ancestral claim to the Islands of Britain, that the Romans are as likely to have been our ancestors as not, that everybody was enslaving everybody else as a part of normal economic activity and that it wasn't necessarily a bad thing, only the last part of the question remains: Did the Romans impose their culture and religion on Britain?

figure of Mercury from Colchester

What do you mean, "Roman go home"? I was born here...

We have already indicated that in some respects the material culture of the Roman world was welcomed by at least some Britons. We know also that there were some who rejected it - at least, certain aristocrats with a stake in the old order did, with more to lose in its passing than they thought they stood to gain from the new - and were able to motivate their followers to resist it to the death. It is harder to tell whether the spiritual culture was accepted or rejected in the same way. The archaeological evidence, such as it is, broadly indicates that in Western Europe a whole century had to pass - the maximum span of a lifetime's memory, if you will - before Romanization was fully established in an annexed territory, and perhaps another century before this was consolidated in full engagement in the Roman material culture, centred as it was on the economics of urban living. Economic and political problems in the Empire - as well as greater cultural differences with the northern tribes - inhibited this process in the northern half of Britain, which remained more or less a military zone until the Empire disintegrated in the 5thC. CE.

But even in the military zone, townships - called vici - grew up around the military bases and a two-way traffic of cultures and ideas began. Soldiers married local girls, local lads joined up. Some cult statues of gods reflect this new relationship: Mercury, for example, is sometimes shown paired with Rosmerta, a local goddess of whom little is known, but presumably she and Mercury had a lot in common. Roman citizens dedicated altars to local gods, non-citizens with Celtic names dedicated altars to Roman gods.

Throughout the period, cult shrines to local gods seem to have prospered. Sometimes the god continued to be worshipped there alone, such as Coventina at Carrawburgh on Hadrian's Wall, and sometimes the deity's name was paired with a Roman equivalent, as seen in the temple to Sulis Minerva at Bath. There is no evidence we know of to suggest that as Roman ways developed in Britain, dedications to local gods decreased, while those made to imported Roman gods increased. If anything, the reverse would seem to be true, for the Romans even added to the local pantheon by naming the Genius Britanniae, the divine spirit of Britain herself.

So, all things considered, we think that the Roman contribution to the spiritual life of Britain, presenting people with real spiritual choices such as we have in today's society, is nothing to regret. We would urge those who do to reconsider events like Boudicca's uprising, or the destruction of the Druid sanctuary at Mona, to look at them in a broader historical context, and consider whether perhaps they were exceptions that proved the rule. They might also want to think about reading a few more books, and visiting some museums, to examine primary sources for evidence.

For Further Reading

CREIGHTON, J, (2000): Coins and Power in Late Iron Age Britain,Cambridge

CREIGHTON, J, (2001): The Iron Age-Roman Transition, in JAMES S, &MILLETT, M (eds) Britons and Romans: Advancing an Archaeological Agenda, CBA Research Report 125

DE LA BEDOYERE G, (1999): Companion to Roman Britain, Stroud

GREEN, M (1983): The Gods of Roman Britain, Aylesbury

HENIG, M (1984): Religion in Roman Britain, London

HENIG, M (1998) Togidubnus and the Roman Liberation, CBA no.37

JAMES, S (1999): The Atlantic Celts: Ancient People or Modern Tradition?, Oxford

MILLET, M, (1990): The Romanization of Britain: An Essay in Archaeological Interpretation, Cambridge

PEDDIE, J (1987): Invasion: The Roman Conquest of Britain, New York

RANKIN, D (1996): Celts and the Classical World, London

REECE, R (1998): My Roman Britain, Cotswold Studies 3, Cirencester

WEBSTER, G (1980): The Roman Invasion of Britain, London